Fortunately, the staff at newly opened Waiheke winery restaurant Tantalus, will not uphold the punishment meted out to Tantalus, son of Zeus, in Greek mythology. Having killed his son in a particularly gruesome way (he boiled him up and served him to the Gods!), he was punished by having to stand in a pool of water below a fruit tree. Every time he reached for a piece of fruit, the branches raised higher so he could not pick the fruit, and when he bent to drink, the water receded, so he remained eternally thirsty and hungry. Well, that’ll teach him!
While the food at Tantalus restaurant will hopefully tempt you, the staff will most definitely deliver it, and you will be left to enjoy. Phew!
Tantalus joins a cluster of vineyards situated in the Onetangi Valley, all of which produce award-winning wines. It seems set to follow suit if the high praise and spangle of stars heaped upon the 2014 Evoque Reserve (Merlot / Malbec / Cabernet Sauvignon / Cabernet Franc) by MW Bob Campbell, Michael Cooper and Raymond Chan is any indication. A craft brewery is set to open soon.
But to the restaurant, because that’s what I want to talk about. Yes, I’ve dined here and I want to return. Much has already been written about the spectacular fit-out by Cheshire Architects, so I’ll keep this brief. The interior is moody, peaceful even, a calm canvas that allows the activities of the day to invest it with energy. And those cute little lights weaved through vineyard clippings hang like a halo of stars above. It’s pretty. Tables by the windows in the courtyard dining area, where we sat, give you a great view of the vines, but the glare hinders enjoyment. And it gets hot. I will no doubt horrify the architects, but even an awning would have made it more tolerable to sit by the windows inside in the courtyard; we moved to another table. Small tables have an annoying wide base to them making it awkward to put your feet anywhere.
Outside is yet to grow into itself, with new plantings not yet nestled in. There’s a starkness to the outside dining area that is crying out to be softened. There are no umbrella holes in the tables, so perhaps this area is a work in progress and shade is coming.
But that’s the niggles over! The staff we encountered were on game – well versed with the menu and wines and, all seemed to have a little bit of X-factor, a swish, a sway, a foreign accent, a professional but friendly air. It was great fun to dine there and be part of it all.
The food had many highlights. We began with a little amuse-bouche of a zingy olive and feta tapenade with capers and lemon zest. Waiheke bakery Ringawera’s lavosh provided the perfect crunch.
A second appetizer was a cute ensemble of roasted baby beetroot with fromage blanc, Spanish Marcona almonds and an apricot mostarda (fruit in a mustardy syrup), sprinkled with vegetable ash made from dehydrated carrot, onion, leek and parsnip. Whoa! This was gorgeous. Earthy in that beet sort of way but with enough other elements to mute the beets, and textural, tangy, colourful.
We also tried a scrumptious snippet of spiced venison loin served with an apple and balsamic reduction, with brown butter and sage.
The duck rillettes were a standout, garnished with spiced apple chutney and freshly made pickles. The lingering hit of tarragon vinegar added perfume and was terrific with the sweet rillettes. I liked the toasts alongside, toasted one side only, so you got crunch and tender crumb as well. There’s nothing worse than hard out toasts that scratch your mouth.
Grilled prawns with salted oatmeal and XO Sauce was simply delicious. The oatmeal is first toasted in clarified butter then cooked with stock made from the prawn shells, and this gives it a great depth of flavour. The chilli content was bang on – enough heat to keep things lively, but not so much as to overpower anything else. The prawns came topped with house-made crispy fried shallots and the tiniest of tiny fried prawns.
The two mains we tried didn’t quite reach these heights: Caramelized gnocchi with shiitake and portobello mushrooms with an aged parmesan wafer, was tangy and creamy, but the dish was rich and the gnocchi not quite light enough for me. The market fish turned out not to be hapuka but kahawai, and although the fish was perfectly cooked, and the accompanying crispy fried Jerusalem artichokes added great texture, especially when contrasted with the creamy skordalia (a thick garlicky purée), served under the fish, we could smell the fish coming before it arrived and didn’t enjoy it’s muddy flavour. Fussy buggers aye! Still, we had ordered hapuka.
Just room for a few white chocolate macarons with a dulce chocolate filling and a hail of freeze-dried raspberry. We left replete and content.
Head Chef LA-born Joe Vasiloff has certainly upped the ante here with many standout items made on site. Other offerings include a coffee-rubbed pork shoulder with a celeriac remoulade, grilled scallops (sorry, can’t get my head around calling them ‘broiled’ as per the menu) with a horseradish and fresh herb crust, and a seared lamb tongue with Andouille sausage. There’s plenty to go back for, especially with regular menu changes.
Tantalus Winery & Restaurant